APA Center for Organizational Excellence: 2015 Winner

The Awards

2015 Organizational Excellence Award Winner

American Express

An Extraordinary Commitment to Employee Well-Being

Picture this: A customer care professional at a busy call center handles dozens of customer inquiries a day. After several calls serving customers, she needs a stress-busting time out. Instead of reaching for comfort food or taking a cigarette break, she calls a company-sponsored service that provides a brief, guided meditation exercise over the phone. A few minutes later, she’s relaxed, refreshed and ready to continue providing exemplary customer service.

This is just one of an astonishingly broad range of resources that global financial-services company American Express offers through the Healthy Living employee assistance program (EAP) and its behavioral component, Healthy Minds. In recognition of the company’s outstanding efforts to promote employee well-being and organizational performance through the application of psychology in the workplace, the American Psychological Association has selected American Express as the inaugural recipient of its Organizational Excellence Award.

Creating Enlightened Policy

At American Express, great service begins with the people who deliver it. This means meeting the emotional as well as physical health needs of some 50,000 employees and their families in the U.S. and around the world.

“We recognize the importance of creating a best-place-to-work environment, and we know that doing so leads to successful business outcomes,” says David Kasiarz, PhD, Senior Vice President of Global Compensation and Benefits. Kasiarz began his professional life in the mental health field and changed careers midstream out of a desire to evolve human resource management by working to create what he describes as “enlightened policy.”

The genesis of Healthy Living and Healthy Minds dates back to the economic downturn of late 2008, when companies across the business spectrum were beginning to reevaluate and retool their employee benefits packages. Up to that point, American Express had offered a telephonic-only EAP model, which had a utilization rate of just 4.2 percent. Data from health-appraisal questionnaires suggested that employees and their dependents were looking for additional support for mental health issues and other behavioral disorders. Moreover, mental health was becoming a significant driver of lost work days.

In 2009, mental health issues accounted for ten in every 100 American Express employees who were on short-term disability — second only to pregnancy. That year, stress and related factors accounted for more than 16,000 work days lost. “Many of the trends we saw in our work environment, such as stress, were also occurring nationally,” Kasiarz says. “That’s when we really started to see the value of investing in employee health and well-being.”

Initially, American Express added free, onsite counselors at its regional Wellness Centers across the United States. The umbrella EAP was rebranded as Healthy Living, and Wayne N. Burton, MD, was recruited as Chief Medical Officer. An internist with 35 years of experience in corporate medicine, Burton has authored or coauthored more than 100 peer-reviewed articles on corporate wellness, including a pioneering 1992 report on depression in the workplace. Burton brought a deep understanding of the connection between physical and emotional health. Together, he and Kasiarz assembled a case for expanding the company’s EAP.

“It’s important to look at physical and emotional health holistically rather than as a collection of silos,” Burton notes. “The mental health counselors in our Wellness Centers provide the next generation of health care for our employees.”

Healthy Minds

Kasiarz and Burton saw the need for a comprehensive behavioral health component to Healthy Living and launched an intensive search for someone with the knowledge, experience and passion to design and lead it. “It was clear to me that we weren’t going to get ahead of the issue without finding a leader in the health care sector —someone who understood business and had a history of innovation, advocacy and achieving results,” Kasiarz says.

The recruitment process took about a year and, in 2012, they found the ideal candidate — Charles J. Lattarulo, PhD, a psychologist with expertise in behavioral health management for global businesses.

Once on board, Lattarulo reviewed the available data, then immersed himself in the culture to understand employees’ needs and gain a sense of what they might and might not buy into. Working with the company’s Compensation and Benefits communications team, he created Healthy Minds and integrated the program into Healthy Living’s lifestyle, safety and disease management and prevention offerings. With its bright colors and positive imagery, the Healthy Minds brand is well on its way to becoming ubiquitous within American Express.

Healthy Minds incorporates a powerful blend of peer-reviewed science, evidence-based practices, professional partnerships for quality resources and services, pilot testing and rigorous evaluation to deliver the best and broadest range of resources and information to its geographically and culturally diverse workforce. The program supports the physical wellness component of Healthy Living and includes onsite activities and events, issues-based campaigns, a website and blogs, and information online and in print that covers an exhaustive list of work-life topics: financial and legal matters, substance use, relationships, parenting, eldercare, supervisory skills and much more. All offerings are company-sponsored and free of charge to employees and their dependents.

“Find Your Brighter Side”

Destigmatizing mental health is a major goal of Healthy Minds, Lattarulo says. The program’s tagline, “Find Your Brighter Side,” was chosen to appeal to a wide audience. “We put it on email signatures and created a blog with links to an online application, so people can share how they’re doing,” says Lattarulo. “And we’ve built webinars around it that are time-sensitive, so employees in different time zones can participate.”

In some cultures, behavioral interventions are most effective when delivered indirectly. For example, employees in certain offices overseas tend to be more comfortable with online chats and email than with face-to-face counseling. So Healthy Minds provides those options.

Other effective means are less conventional. To explore the link between workplace productivity and computer applications that are grounded in sound psychological principles, American Express is currently testing one game based on cognitive-behavioral research and practices at its offices in Mexico. Initial research suggests the game may enhance users’ overall outlook as well as their performance.

“Every region has its own drivers,” Lattarulo explains. “Utilization around the globe varies. You have to be aware of what works and what doesn’t.”

‘Hot Pockets’ and Pilot Testing

In his role as Global Director of Healthy Minds, Lattarulo and his team review and analyze a wealth of employee information to identify “hot pockets,” areas where programs are most needed. Data is collected and stored for analysis at the University of Michigan’s Health Management Research Center.

“Everything we do boils down to research,” Lattarulo explains. “The data tells us what employees are experiencing, where it’s taking place, and how it’s affecting productivity.” Lattarulo, Burton and Kasiarz collectively determine where program improvements should be made.

Many prospective initiatives are pilot tested at the company’s Customer Care Center in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Doria Camaraza, Senior Vice President and General Manager for Customer Care, is responsible for thousands of employees who are on the phone with customers around the clock. She is an enthusiastic proponent of Healthy Minds.

“We want every customer who communicates with us to come away with a lasting favorable impression of the company,” Camaraza says. “Investing in people, giving them the freedom to care for themselves as well as our customers, makes a huge difference. It sets us apart from the competition. And it’s what makes us not just a good employer, but an employer of choice.”

Camaraza points to the value of partnering with providers to secure proven resources and expertise. The Ft. Lauderdale Healthy Living Wellness Center, which has a utilization rate of 83 percent, is staffed by nurses and a nurse practitioner. “Recently the nursing staff recommended that many employees would benefit from being able to consult with a pharmacist,” she says. A licensed pharmacist is now onsite two days a week.

Creative Stress-Busters

The World Health Organization has targeted depression as a worldwide health crisis, citing studies that one person in four will suffer from a diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives. This past year, Lattarulo and his team launched the “One in Four” campaign. They ordered chair covers with the “One in Four” logo, placing a cover over every fourth chair at a large staff gathering. The logo was printed on coffee cup sleeves and placed on every fourth cup. Award-winning actor Glenn Close was invited to the company’s headquarters in New York City to discuss her family’s experience with mental illness. Her remarks, which were filmed and shared with American Express employees around the world, also included tips, resources and ways to seek confidential help.

Since launching “One in Four,” counseling visits to the company’s Wellness Centers have increased. Notes Lattarulo, “The campaign got people thinking differently about mental health and decreased their discomfort over getting help.”

Thousands of American Express employees work from home and have limited access to face-to-face Healthy Minds activities. So the Healthy Living team created Benefits in a Box — what Lattarulo calls “a time capsule of wellness” — that is mailed to their homes. The box contains “mood” cards that help people assess their current stress level, refrigerator magnets, exercise bands, printed materials, referrals to online resources and other information designed to support wellness outside the office.

Benefits in a Box has been well-received by home-based employees and their families. Data on its effectiveness was recently shared with all employees in the company’s For Your Benefit magazine.

A Sound Model

While Healthy Minds is still new, the program is gaining traction company-wide. In its second year, the Healthy Minds website recorded more than 22,000 hits. Participation in onsite health offerings such as flu shots, biometric screenings and local health events has increased. Healthy Minds blogs are well-read, and the number of comments on the blog’s site, from both office- and home-based employees, is growing. In an employee satisfaction survey, 90.6 percent gave the program high marks.

“Our aim is always to be proactive,” says Lattarulo. “Why should we wait until stress becomes full-fledged anxiety, or until sadness turns into depression? Our belief is that we are catching stress before it becomes anxiety, and catching sadness before it becomes depression.”

While Healthy Minds’ offerings and utilization are on the rise, one important statistic is going down.

“Already, we are seeing a leveling-off of both medical and behavioral health claims, and the rates of behavioral health issues are decreasing,” Lattarulo says.

In the future, as more data is collected and analyzed, employee health patterns and their impact in the workplace can be targeted and addressed even more meaningfully.

Kasiarz, Burton and Lattarulo regard Healthy Minds, with its solid research and evaluation components, as a sound behavioral health model for any company or organization. Kasiarz cautions, however, that workplace wellness programs are most successful when they are supported at the highest levels of an organization.

“Healthy Minds is first and foremost a business initiative that is scaled globally, customized locally and supported through investment,” he explains. “No company of any size should write off mental health as a societal responsibility alone. If business leaders have the courage to raise the issue of health and well-being and understand the long-term benefits of investing in employee health, good things can happen.”

Lattarulo adds, “Business leaders need to understand that behavioral health issues can have a significant impact on their bottom line. American Express was extremely savvy to envision a global wellness EAP component and to hire someone to manage it. Doing the research, identifying evidence-based interventions and tailoring them to a company’s culture can result in a huge win.”

"We have worked to create a culture that supports the nature and goals of our business. As importantly, we communicate our culture to associates, clients and prospects through many channels every day. This helps us align people with the goals of our business, and has contributed to our success with employee satisfaction and with company growth and profits."

Will Ruch
CEO and Managing Partner